And so, the cities burned.

A plague of fire, ash, and cinder awash between great monuments and temples to achievement, set to ruin by the will of a Titan of Olympus. Across the face of Earth, the flames licked at doorways and the wind flattened homes, and some would swear they heard the galloping of hooves under the death-rattle of our age.

All paths end, all sidewalks yield to the dirt, and all stories have a final chapter. I can see now that it was inevitable. Whatever folly man had bowed to, it was not the inhumanity of humanity that has left us threadbare and crippled. Entropy states that all things seek destruction, that the natural state of matter is death and disarray. Life, in its many imaginative forms, was a happy accident and anomaly; one that did not take long to correct itself.

Whoever pushed the button, turned the key, and pledged victory at the bitter end is irrelevant. The end was always coming. Or, rather, it had been here the whole time. Our prosperity and abundance was the beginning of a slow burn, one that took the lifetime of nations to properly blaze. Our tinder was too dry, may Prometheus be damned.

But many thousands of words have been and will be spoken in blame. Many millions of impassioned speeches will be given about how A was the one who primed the chair, or how B was the one who pulled the switch, or even how poor C protested, read us our last rites, and prayed for our souls. All of them rest, now, in dead ears tuned to static. Words for the past are leaden in the throat, and fall just as heavily. Words for the future are light, fey, and witless as they float invisibly to the clouds. We can only subsist on words for the present. The Now. The Eyes-and-Ears.

Enough words have been spoken for the dead. Let fly those meant for the living.

The Wretched. The Left-Behind, some call themselves. Damned. Lost. Empty. Garbage. Spare Change. Nobody ever calls us 'Survivors.' We are the refuse left to scatter in the wind, the cockroaches that scurried under the fridge as the house burned down. We are only a fraction of what we once were. How small, we won't know. No one has been brave enough to count. We are the single twitching leg of a spider, crushed by a bootheel. We are dried ejaculate, rimming the lid of a toilet. We are the bleached-white corpse of a sapling, sentinel of a forest fire. We do not survive. We smolder.

Sixth Avenue, Manhattan, New York City. A petrified bench has been largely unmarred by the ashen rain, and it is outside a small delicatessen I used to frequent. I come to this bench at sunrise and sit. The store has been looted long ago aside from a thick safe behind the cash register, one very old and somewhat impractical, but evidently more than enough to withstand at least one Apocalypse. I found the combination hidden underneath on a small note, so far my only moment of luck in two years. Inside the safe was a stack of cash (pocketed as fuel for future fires), a box of fine cigars, and a bottle of aged wine. The cigars don't interest me, but the wine was more that sufficient to satiate me for a day. I set the empty shell of my drink next to the bench. It has not moved for three months. Neither have I.

I don't look at particularly anything from my bench. The shells of cars, insides cooked like ovens during the first explosions, line the streets and become further caked in soot by the day. I recognize the car of a pretty girl that had worked across the street from here. She and I had struck up a conversation before about local restaurants. A present one. She is still inside her car, hand welded to the door handle and sunglasses melted over her empty sockets.

I don't think much. I thought I could use this time to come to reflect. After a time, there is nothing else you can say, even to yourself. But routine is routine, I suppose. This bench has become more of a home than my apartment, one a kindly couple had given me residence to after I had peeled them off of the bathroom floor.

There aren't many others left here. Most of the living are simple and pathetic excuses for human beings, stripped of their senses and their sanity crippled. They wander the roads like ghosts, moaning and crying and screaming. They don't bother me anymore. A rumor emerged about a Midwest settlement, one that had avoided destruction by the sheer value of isolation. I had thought of making the pilgrimage myself, but I will be turning 62 not long from now. It has been made abundantly clear that my time here is over. All that's left is waiting for the clock to chime. I heard this rumor from a young woman who had stopped at my bench to rest. That was a year ago. I haven't seen her again.

Other than her, there was only one other person to wander past my bench, one that stuck much more stubbornly, like a cyst in my mind.

The city is silent. In the fresh days, when the fire still blazed, one couldn't hear themselves think outside the screams, the crashes, the crumbling buildings, and the frequent explosions that rocked the streets. But now, there is nothing to be heard. Sometimes it's so quiet that my own heartbeat becomes a cacophony, a drumbeat reminder that these old bones still cling to whatever life may be left.

A light striking sound wafted up the street on stagnant air. Something took measured, crashing steps up Sixths Avenue, remarkable only by its steady rhythm. I've imagined things here, on this bench. Voices and footsteps and songs and my own name. Remnants and residue. This sound of breaking didn't come from my mind. In fact, it had a face.

Someone came up the street, on the opposite sidewalk. I had perceived him coming from a long way away, but it had taken much longer to consciously acknowledge his existence. The surprise of seeing this man, the first human being I had seen in a very long time, was pushed aside by confusion. The man, only barely old enough to carry that title, walked with a quick but precise pace past the abandoned shells of buildings.

In his right hand, he carried a large and weathered claw-hammer. He would come to an abrupt stop every time he encountered an intact window, raise his arm, and smash it to scattering bits with a single blow, sending twinkling stars of glass bouncing over the sidewalk. He did this with a deliberate rhythm, his route planned, mapped, and outlined down to the smallest variable.

Moving forward, he stopped in front of a once-lucrative boutique, one that had miraculously kept its storefront display window unharmed from all but clouds of dust and ash. With a swing, his hammer bounced against the thick glass, a small spiderweb cracking from the impact center. Flipping it around, the man used the claw end of the hammer to chip into a small point toward the bottom of the frame. He struck this point with the blunt end. As he skirted out of the way, the thick plate groaned forward and fell from its setting to demolish itself against the ground. Never taking a moment to admire his handiwork, the man continued nonchalantly on his way.

I, on the other hand, had been jolted awake for the first time in years. I felt the crash in my chest as well as in my ears. Barely conscious, I stood on weak and aging knees and crossed the street as quickly as I was able. My steps, though insignificant, kicked up plumes of ash that fell like snowfall against the cars I passed. Already panting, I managed to catch up to the man as he stopped to furiously tear into the crystal awning of a bust stop. Staring at me, he wiped sweat from his forehead and put his hands to his hips.

"These use thicker glass. It's hard." It was the first voice I had heard in a long time. It was youthful and deep, but ragged. He had not spoken for a very long time. The man wore a thick pair of jeans, stained black by miles of clinging soot. Over a thick coat, he carried a small bag. Taking it down, he opened it to reveal it contained only a mass of tools, conventional and improvised. Crowbars, handaxes, sawed baseball bats, and more. Water, food, bedding, and more were nowhere to be found. Slipping the hammer into the bag, he exchanged it for a sharp climbing pick. Flipping it over in his hand, he used the sharp end of the handle to bash against the edges of the glass, spawning more and more cracks that crossed each other like rivers on a map.

"Wait." My voice was thick and heavy as well, with a surprising rasp of sickness behind it. The man stopped, looking my way with abnormally large eyes. In spite of the death that littered the planet, there was a spark of light in those eyes I hadn't expected. Although, it just as easily could have been sunlight glinting off the pieces of something broken inside. He was young and tan and healthy, something far more peculiar than if he'd been a thin wraith, shriveled grotesquely into little more than bones.

"What are you doing?" I asked, my own voice alien and strange. Language had become something of a novelty and it took a moment to find the words. Apparently, the odd man felt the same. He opened and closed his mouth, like a fish gasping for air, before he took hold of the pick and slammed it through the pane, jagged shards bouncing harmlessly from his thick boots.

"That." He looked at me, as if for appraisal on his work. The gray eyes, either of steel or of dust, bored through me like an animal's. He was a paradox. Feral, but refined. Mindless in action, but singular in purpose. My presence was a vague ghost of an interruption, one that he had deemed far less important than the task at hand.

"Why?" I asked. He blinked. The question washed over him like waves over a boulder. When the tide finally pulled out, he never answered. Ignoring me, he took hold of the pick with both hands and began chipping at the sealing around a smaller pane. When he was finished, he picked up his leg and kicked it to the sidewalk, where it shattered.

"I like to use gravity to break them," he said. "That doesn't work with the thin windows, though. That's why I use the hammer most of the time." He slung his bag around and replaced the pick for his choice instrument. "I thought about carrying a sledgehammer, a small one, but this one does the job well. Lasts a long time, too." Reeling he back, he let the hammer fly through the smaller panes of the bus stop until it was nothing but a skeleton.

Hooking the claw end to his belt, the man picked up his bag and continued down the street. It would have been obscene of me not to follow. I followed far behind as he gracefully and skillfully destroyed every intact frame of glass he came across. His actions were fascinating to me. I felt deeply and profoundly compelled to follow this man like a disciple or a protege. In less romantic terms, some part of me must have felt he knew something I didn't. In either case, I kept at his bootheels for nearly ten blocks. I caught up with him finally when he stopped to admire a car with its windshield untouched.

"These are different," he explained as I approached. Stooping, he hefted a large slab of concrete over his head an lobbed it against the car. With a crunch, the glass was crushed under the slab, but still set into shape. The man took his crowbar and approached the passenger-side window. "It's hard to get it from the outside, but getting it from the inside is easier." Reaching in through the charred remains, the dislodged the safety glass, still clinging together in the loose shape of a window. Taking hold, the man picked up the glass and hurled it at a wall where it exploded into hundreds of particles on impact. The man smiled gleefully with a child's euphoria.

"Why?" I asked again. "Why are you doing this?" His smile faded into the shadow of a scowl. Picking up his crowbar, he continued with myself in tow. "Are you building something?" I pried. "Cleaning up?" I poked and prodded and grasped at straws in the dark, my curiosity straining in an almost painful fashion. But they were evidently ignored as the man took more interest in destroying window after window, some with only a single strike.

"Where are you going?" Evidently, I had asked the right question. Without bothering to look at me, I was probably a nuisance at this point, he pointed up at the fallen debris of a skyscraper, a behemoth corpse that loomed over the street; it could block out the sun if you knew where to stand.

"There's a window at the top," he said. "I can see it sometimes when the sun comes out."

"And you're going to break it?"

"Yes." He said, proudly. "It has to be made pretty thick to survive this long. I can't wait to start climbing."

"What do you think you'll use?" I had begun to pick up the pattern in his conversation.

"Maybe something I don't use that often, like the wrench or the pipe." He swung his bag around and began digging, emerging with what looked like a thick stone on the end of a pencil. "I found a diamond glass cutter in a shop one time. I've never really used it seriously. I might break it in."

"You've been doing this for a while?"

He shrugged. "Long enough."

"You seem to know what you're doing."


"Who are you?"

The man slung the bag over his shoulder and slipped the glass cutter in his pocket. He quickly threw the crowbar through the last remaining window of another bus stop, not far ahead. I hurried on thin and anemic legs to him.

"What's your name?" I blurted out as he stooped to pick up his tool.

"I don't care." He said with absolute, immovable finality. He was done with me. Standing up, he strode ever closer toward the fallen skyscraper, skipping windows to get away. He was walking faster than I could keep up.

I shouted after him, in my frail, old voice, to wait. He did.

"I have to know. Why? Please, just tell me. I don't know why, but I have to know the reason you're...doing this."

The man paused, blinking dimly from his oversized eyes. After a long time, he answered. "Because I have to."

"Why?" I didn't know if my shouts were pleas or demands.

"Because I...just do. It's what I do."

Perplexed beyond all reckoning, any further questions dropped dead on my tongue. He left me standing as he moved on down the street, following a path that may not have an end, to a story that may not have a final chapter. Near the end of the block, he turned back and cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting just as much for the dead city as for me.

"Besides," he yelled, "what else is there?"

And, with that, we were split. I watched him go, trying to work out his last words until even the dust he kicked up had disappeared. Something about that young man had burrowed deeply inside me and now lives, every once in a while fluttering like a moth to remind me that it's still there. His task was meaningless, pointless toil, the product of a deranged mind. A consciousness doesn't take much pressure to crack. In the little time sense the end, I've seen more than enough evidence. The Glass Breaker was insane. He was no more a prophet than the corpses that now populate the city. So then why does he stick out so glaringly? Why does my mind, in idle moments, find itself drifting to thoughts of the Glass Breaker and his quest? What was it that made him so infectious to my waking hours that his face has begun seeping into my dreams?

And, most importantly, why have I taken to carrying a hammer?